Perspective From Michael Crichton On Experts And Predicting Crises

Michael Chrichton was a unique and relentlessly positive influence on our culture, popular and otherwise, before his death in 2008 at the age of 66.  Trained as a doctor and scientist, he applied his knowledge, his brilliance, and more importantly, his remarkable powers of lateral thinking and unbiased analysis, to myriad  fields, always aimed at a form of public education that was fueled by entertainment.  He taught, he wrote best-selling novels, he was a futurist, he directed movies, he created TV shows.   Mostly he thought, and through the fruits of his thought, made ordinary people smarter, at least those smart enough to pay attention. Yes, he thought a lot about ethics. You can learn more about his career and interests at his website, here.

Michael Crichton was especially interested in threats and crises, how they happen and our reactions to them. His first hit novel, “The Andromeda Strain” was about a deadly virus. He would have been very helpful right now. Though he was himself an expert on many topics, he was wary of the abuse of expertise; though he was a visionary, he was was a vocal skeptic of predictions and assumptions. Crichton, I think, would have found the current weaponizing of hindsight bias to find a new way to demonize President Trump as revolting and dishonest as I do.

In this 2002 lecture, Crichton discussed the media’s obsession with speculation, and society’s unwarranted confidence that the future is predictable, especially when experts are doing the predicting. Some selections: Continue reading

Eliot Spitzer, the Harvard Club, and Blackball Ethics

Eliot Spitzer, we have learned, has been blackballed by the New York City Harvard Club. Although over 11,000 graduates of the august institution are members, and the club, which is always seeking funds and rejects an application about as frequently as its alma mater plays a decent football game, nonetheless found Spitzer wanting.

Is this a surprise to anyone? There are only a few reasons to join the Harvard Club or even tolerate it, unless one has an unhealthy affection for the stuffed heads of things Theodore Roosevelt shot, many of which are hanging on the wall. The main reason is prestige (and to let visitors know that you graduated from Harvard without having to say so). A club, by its very nature, suggests some degree of exclusivity; one’s cache from belonging to a club derives from its members. I can imagine a rational person feeling some sense of pride in belonging to a club of Harvard graduates. I cannot imagine a rational person feeling any special sense of exclusivity emanating from membership in a club that includes Eliot Spitzer. Continue reading

Ethics Hero: Johnny Depp

Hollywood celebrities frequently lend their prominence and notoriety to causes that are dubious or even harmful; Jenny McCarthy’s passionate promotion of now-discredited links between vaccines and autism are a recent and disturbing example. At other times, celebrities assert expertise on complex topics far beyond their competence or comprehension; this was a theme in Michael Crichton’s attack on global warming hysteria, State of Fear. Johnny Depp, however, has got it right. As his highly anticipated film “Alice in Wonderland” is about to be released and he has the media following his every move, Depp is using his fame and following to focus attention on what may be an egregious miscarriage of justice.

It is the case of the West Memphis Three. In 1993, police discovered the bodies of  three 8-year-olds, and there was immediate speculation that their killings had been part of a satanic ritual. Satanic cults were big in 1993, and long-haired Damien Echols became a suspect as much for his demeanor and reputation as for anything substantive. Indeed, there was no evidence tying him to the crime until a cognitively impaired boy named Jessie Misskelly Jr. told police that he helped Echols and Jason Baldwin kill the boys. Continue reading